I Was There When…Jeff Beck Blew John McLaughlin Off the Stage in 1975

With “I Was There When…,” veteran music journalist Doug Collette reflects on his experiences in the glory days of live rock music. With each column, he takes us back to a specific concert he attended way back when, spotlighting bands like The Who, Pink Floyd, and The Allman Brothers Band, among many others.

Civic Center; Springfield, MA (April 26th, 1975)

The co-billing of Jeff Beck and John McLaughlin’s Mahavishnu Orchestra in the spring of 1975 made perfect sense in more ways than one. Not only were the two guitar heroes of their era label-mates (the former on Epic; the latter on Columbia), but also their prestigious status on their instruments was hardly in question.

Replacing Eric Clapton in The Yardbirds, Beck made a name for himself as an innovator of the highest order, and his original Jeff Beck Group created the template for heavy bands of the late ’60s. Recovering from a serious auto accident, he’d had mixed success with subsequent lineups, but his first foray into instrumental music, Blow by Blow, reignited interest in Beck and the jazz-rock fusion field in general.

An alumnus of Miles Davis and Tony Williams’ Lifetime, McLaughlin had helped create that genre with the first incarnation of Mahavishnu — yet this version of the band was not the lean fiery quintet as first assembled, but instead an expanded ensemble including violinist Jean Luc Ponty (fresh off his stint with Frank Zappa) and keyboardist/vocalist Gayle Moran, who had most recently performed in a similar context with an evolved version of Chick Corea’s Return to Forever. The metamorphosis of these two hallowed groups was remarkably similar in their concept and eventual impact, and the contrast McLaughlin posited couldn’t have been more stark this April evening at the Springfield Civic Center.

BeckMATicket 1975

Sans stage production of any kind, Beck brought a stripped-down quartet to bear on a fairly standard setlist, including nasty funk like “Constipated Duck,” alternated with ballads such as “’Cause We’ve Ended as Lovers” that were as delicate as rockers such as “Freeway Jam” were volcanic. Anyone who thought this man’s genius lay in the means by which he overdubbed complementary guitar parts on recordings might well have been laughing maniacally watching Beck’s left hand fly up and down the fretboard while his right maneuvered the whammy bar and various other controls of his guitar.

Elongated phrases assumed an inevitable logic, as Wilbur Bascombe on bass and the legendary Bernard Purdie on drums generated ebb and flow of rhythm simultaneously independent of and complementary to the guitar. In the meantime, across the stage from Beck, keyboardist Max Middleton evinced the same stoic demeanor as the band leader, effortlessly drawing out crisp, glowing notes of electric piano and atmospheric clouds of synthesizer (mimicking orchestration Beatles producer George Martin had arranged on “Diamond Dust”) from his own instruments.

This straightforward, all-too-human approach made selections from Apocalypse and Visions of the Emerald Beyond sound even more bombastic than they might have otherwise. There was no missing the lack of dynamics, as the leader’s icy guitar gave way to Ponty’s fevered electrified violin, proving intensity is a relative concept.  Moran’s keyboards, flowery as they were, found an over-busy match when precocious bassist Ralphe Armstrong stepped forward to solo in the hopes of demonstrating he had as much technical skill as anyone else in the group.

It was perhaps no surprise in retrospect, but no less an ironic one, that the most outstanding musician of McLaughlin’s’ ensemble was drummer Narada Michael Walden, who would subsequently become a lynchpin in the recording of Beck’s next studio effort, Wired (and four decades later return to accompany the man when Beck toured briefly with Clapton). Walden seemed to be the only member of the Orchestra actually listening and reacting to the musicians in front of him, as they engaged in an exercise of almost pure Sturm und Drang.

The audience filling the cookie cutter venue, originally designed for hockey and basketball, were no doubt stunned on a number of fronts this night, wondering what they’d seen and heard from Beck and company as they opened the show, but they were hardly given the chance to process it all before being subjected to the heavy-handed Mahavishnu Orchestra: Mach II.

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29 Responses

  1. I was at the 75 show in Phoenix AZ. It was one of the occasions that MO opened for Beck. McLaughlin’s group and performance was so awesome that I left halfway through Beck’s set. Beck’s performance was good, to be sure, but it was so anticlimactic to the power of the MO, even in this configuration.

    1. I’ve always loved Jeff because his solos tell a story and are melodic. JM is obviously a technical master. Jeff is more pleasing to the ear.

  2. Well we are all entitled to our opinions and since I wasn’t there that night, I cannot say yours is correct or not. However, I will say that I have never seen anyone “blow McLaughlin off the stage” either acoustically or electrically. I do agree that MO 2 was not as powerful as MO 1 – no band has even been.
    I might humbly suggest you read Power, Passion & Beauty by Walter Kolosky , the 2014 ebook edition so you can see for yourself what Jeff Beck has said about John McLaughlin, as Mark has mentioned above.

    1. Ted – Mr. Collette claims to have read Walter Kolosky’s book, and he trashed it, IIRC. That should indicate something right there.

  3. Ted & Mark, Doug’s is an opinion earned through years of experience,
    and I hope you will accept that Beck, though humbly crediting McLaughlin
    as the better guitarist, might have produced a superior performance on
    a given night. For me, theirs is truly a comparison of apples and oranges,
    and my clarifying question might be this: which guitarist/bandleader
    would you rather have danced to in 1976? 🙂

  4. I was at the ’75 Springfield show and am happy to send along a few photo’s… As a fan of both players…. hard to say if anyone was the stronger player… Beck was on fire… John’s playing wa much more subdued as compared the original Mahavishnu Orchestra whom I seen a year and half earlier at Bowker Auditorium, Univ Of Mass. , Amherst..
    It was a great and I met Jeff at the Springfield Sheraton, later that night, wherein a jam session was held in the hotel cocktail lounge featuring players from both bands.. What a night !

  5. i have seen jeff beck well over 100 times each time he played on the east coast after i saw him at the fillmore east in 1968 and he not only blew me away but played his guitar like i think and feel and i sure as hell saw him at avery fisher hall with bernard perdie, wilber bascomb and max middleton and john mclauglin opened up for him and the jamed together (both bands) at the end. BECK IS THE GREATEST GUITARIST ever as far as i am concerned.

  6. Sounds like it was written by someone who didn’t appreciate Mahavishnu 2. Oh well. I would have done about anything to see a band like that. A band like Becks, you could see about any day of the week in any bar. Jeff is fantastic, but that band, Mahavishnu, legendary. Too bad you did not appreciate it. Prob were not ready.

  7. On any given night I imagine Beck & company could blow McLaughlin & company off the stage and – on another night- vice versa. Both men are phenomenal talents who attract first rate colleagues in their exploits. I’ve seen both live and relished every one of their performances.

  8. I was nerdy enough in 1975 to come home from shows and write down what I saw. For instance, I can tell you that Mahavishnu Orchestra was the opener that night in Springfield, not the other way around as described in the article.

  9. I saw the show in Boston maybe a week later, and I’m pretty sure the violinist was Steve Kinder, not Jean Luc who had left after the recording of VOTEB. Also I think it was Stu Goldberg, not Gayle Moran on keys. Beck was at the top of the bill, at least in beantown.

  10. I saw Avery Fisher and agree with Doug. Jeff was so much more impressive in every way. Perhaps the stripped down fusion group he had was more like MO I I don’t know but Beck was way the Man that night. And I love all of McLaughlin’s work Bitches Brew Emergency w Tony Williams through Shakti. The original quintet was the bomb listen to Between Nothingnesss and Eternity. Both great in their own right and should tour again!

    1. I was also at that show. I think Jeff’s playing was more accessible to the rock ear looking to expand his/her sonic library. Few if any have better technical chops over McLaughlin but Beck has a way of coaxing sounds out of guitars that is unique. For my taste, JB won the night. I am sure there are plenty of Mahavishnu fans that would disagree and for their taste level, they would be right.

  11. What a silly story. I was at several of these shows, and both Beck and McLaughlin’s bands played great and went down a storm every time. I’m sorry Doug doesn’t “get” the M.O. and that incredibly incorrect “heavy handed” statement made me bust out laughing.
    Keep your day job, kid. Music criticism is not your bag. At all.

  12. Must be the best bill in fusion history. I saw this incarnation of Maha’ Orch’ in the U.K. and didn’t get to see Jeff until a few years ago. when he toured with the amazing band he recorded a residency with, at Ronnie Scott’s/London.
    They are both wired to the elements when they play and are incandescent/transporting when “on”. Silly to play the …who’s better … game IMO.
    Anyone who saw Shakti live will know why Jeff reveres him so much. Anyone who has seen Jeff at his best will know why the fact that he technically can’t play what John is capable of playing … that that fact … is totally irrelevant.

  13. As a huge Jeff Beck & John Mclaughlin fan, to compare the two is silly. While Jeff Beck is the master of coaxing incredible sounds from his guitar, he isn’t even close (and he admitted so) to the sheer technical virtuosity that JM has. Only one other comes close and that is the late Larry Coryell. Conversation over!

  14. I saw that tour in 1975 in Tulsa, OK. Beck greatly impressed me with his creativity and range and the Blow by Blow material. While “Visions of the Emerald Beyond” wasn’t McLaughlin’s best work, I was still blown away by both bands. The Mahavishnu set was a little too loud, but they got into some really intense pieces beginning about halfway in and when they were done I was almost in a trance. It was hard to get up and walk away. Great concert overall. I don’t think Beck ‘blew McLaughlin away’, but Beck sure gave a great account of himself, and it wasn’t McLaughlin’s finest hour – yet awesome nevertheless.

  15. I was at that Springfield show and Mahavishnu opened for Beck… so I do not understand what you are saying at all 🙂

    1. I must confess I trust my recollection(s) and my observations more than those of defensive fanboys (of which Kolosky is the archetype: ‘The Greatest Band That Ever Was’!?!?…c’mon man!?!?!?)

  16. I was at Winterland, San Francisco mainly to see McLaughlin. I don’t remember alot of details… MO opened for Jeff Beck and when John McLaughlin came out at the end of the show, I thought JM stole his thunder and Beck walked off as John kept playing. Just my impression and questionable memory.

  17. I also was at the Springfield show. Honestly, I remember some concerts better than others, and this one not so much. I was and still am a huge Jeff Beck fan, but at the time I was not very familiar with Blow by Blow as it had only come out about a month earlier. Yardbirds, Jeff’s 4 previous albums with his two bands, and BBA was where I was at musically. I also remember that MO opened and I wasn’t impressed – too much pointless noodling. I wasn’t that into Beck’s direction at the time either, although I liked him better than MO. I have warmed to Jeff’s style over the years. Since I saw Jeff at Foxwoods in 2014, I have become a fanatic. I have become obsessed with getting a legitimate recording or a soundboard recording of at least one show from every Jeff Beck tour/band – not an easy task. This 1975 tour being especially difficult.
    Regarding MO, I’ve never been able to get into them. I don’t like the tone of John’s guitar (or is it his amplifier), there’s too much violin, and too much pointless noodling. In preparation for writing this, I gave the MO another listening and still feel the same way. I’m sure that Jeff knows what he is saying when he says that John’s technique is better than his, but music is so subjective and just because he is good doesn’t mean that everyone will like his music. The players are certainly talented.

    As an aside, did anyone who was at this show see the Yardbirds at Mountain Park on August 15, 1967? Talk about a show: 10 feet from the stage with the Jimmy Page Yardbirds on their last tour, documented on the Anderson Theater show.

  18. Funny,i saw them both Beck and MO around 1975, i believe it was at the Nassau Coliseum. And at the end of the show they were trading rifts when Beck finally gestured to john after John had finished one of his rifts. It was an obvious i can’t top that John. and stopped trading rifts at that point. Beck is excellent, but it was obvious to me John took home the trophy. I believe Mclaughlin, Di meola, Paco Deucia and Bireli Lagrene are the best in the business. Honorable mention to Larry Coryell.

  19. I was at the show at Avery in 1975. I was blown away by both bands and guitarists who I still love to this day. I don’t know which show this guy Doug went to, but at the end of the jam they did together that closed the show Jeff laid his guitar down at McLaughlin’s feet, bowed and walked off stage. It was done as a sign of respect as they has been trading solo licks for about ten to fifteen minutes. Doug was mistaken if he was at the show I was at. There was nothing but mutual admiration between them and it was evident. I remember it vividly although I was eighteen years old at the time. Marc G

  20. I was at the show at hofstra university in 1975, and both bands blew me away. Being a huge jeff beck fan, I must say that he was my favorite. Whether he blew Mclaughlin off the stage is debateable. Both are amazing musicians.

  21. For most, Becks brand of “Fusion” is more easily heard, less time changes, soloing, etc, more melodies. Beck is an excellent guitarist, as Is McLaughlin. But McLaughlin is a Master, improvising, creating, while Beck plays street mapped solos, though with great finesse.

  22. I attended the early and late shows at Winterland Ballroom. Beck and John M. jammed at the end of the early show, but did not in the late show. I was with a guy who tripped out on window pane during the early Mahavishnu set. I escorted him to the door and he left. Terrific shows !

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